This could be the strangest coincidence in the history of pop music.
Paul McCartney was inspired to write the verses of “She’s Leaving Home” after reading an article in the British tabloid Daily Mirror about Melanie Coe, a teenage runaway. But bizarrely enough, Paul had actually met Melanie four years earlier. In 1963, The Beatles appeared on the pop music show Ready Steady Go!, and Paul judged a song miming competition in which Melanie took part. Four girls danced and lip-synced to Brenda Lee’s “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”, and Paul chose Melanie as the winner:
Hmm. Apparently Girl #3 was having a seizure. Poor thing. I hope she’s okay. Anyway, in the following years, Melanie frequented London clubs and would rub shoulders with acts like The Beatles (again), The Rolling Stones, and The Hollies. She became a fashionable London socialite who would often dance the night away and go home with strange men, much to the chagrin of her parents. One day her mother decided that she had had enough and ripped some of Melanie’s provocative clothes to shreds. In Melanie’s own words: “She wanted me to look like Princess Anne, not my idol, Marianne Faithfull.”
And things got worse from there. When Melanie’s parents found her birth control pills, they were outraged, and they made her flush the pills down the toilet. So what does all this have to do with the song? Well, Melanie ran away from home after the pills incident, and then the Daily Mirror published an article about her dated February 27th, 1967, the very article that inspired Paul to write “She’s Leaving Home” for The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The article revealed how her parents had given Melanie everything that she could have ever wanted, including a car. But she left it all behind with only a note. Melanie would later describe how her parents went out for an afternoon, so she seized the opportunity and left. The story continues from there, according to an interview with Melanie conducted years later:
“I was 17 by then and ran away leaving a note, just like in the song. I went to a doctor and he said I was pregnant, but I didn’t know that before I left home. My best friend at the time was married to Ritchie Blackmore, so she hid me at their house in Holloway Road. It was the first place my parents came to look, so I ran off with my boyfriend, who was a croupier, although he had been ‘in the motor trade’ like it says in the song. I think my dad called up the newspapers – my picture was on the front pages. He made out that I must have been kidnapped, because why would I leave? They gave me everything – coats, cars. But not love. My parents found me after three weeks and I had an abortion.”
So that’s the story behind “She’s Leaving Home”. It’s sad, but then again, so is the song. In many ways, “She’s Leaving Home” could be considered the centerpiece of Sgt. Pepper’s. Music critics often point out that though the album is labeled one of the first “concept” albums, The Beatles didn’t really follow through with the concept beyond the first two songs and the title track reprise towards the end, just before “A Day in the Life”. But if The Beatles were trying to throw off the shackles of being The Beatles and step into the shoes of a fictional band, then “She’s Leaving Home” fits right into that idea. Because none of The Beatles actually played any instruments on the track. They weren’t really being themselves. “She’s Leaving Home” represents the ideas of The Beatles as played by other people.
Those other people were session string players, including a woman named Sheila Bromberg on the harp, the first female to play on a Beatles song. Record producer Mike Leander arranged the string parts for the song. Ms. Bromberg revealed a few years ago that she was only paid nine pounds for her contributions, even though Paul made her play the song over and over to get it just right. When midnight came around, the session players packed up their instruments and left because they had work in the morning. Upon listening to the final version of “She’s Leaving Home”, Sheila realized that the very first take she had played was the one that The Beatles eventually used. Paul wrote and sang the verses of the song, while John contributed the chorus. In fact, John referred to the chorus as a “Greek chorus” because it added contextual structure to the song by relating events from the parents’ point of view. In ancient Greek plays, the chorus was a group of performers who would appear on the stage periodically and help the audience understand the story more by delving into the character’s minds and summarizing what was going on.
But what does the song really mean? Well, the lyrics are some of the most narratively structured in The Beatles catalogue. They tell a clear story of a girl who feels unfulfilled by her home life, so she flies the coop early one Wednesday morning. It is evident that the girl’s parents constantly tried to buy their daughters’ affection with material things, but they never really connected with her emotionally. She felt lonely at home, so she left to meet “a man from the motor trade”, who may have been her boyfriend. Then, finally, after years of loneliness, she allows herself to have fun.
The parents’ words reveal a great deal about their character and what made them so unbearable to their daughter. Take for example this couplet spoken by the mother in the second verse:
“Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly? How could she do this to me?”
Which leads directly into John’s chorus:
“We never thought of ourselves. Never a thought for ourselves.”
There seems to be a contradiction there. The parents erupt in self-pity without sparing a thought for the whereabouts or safety of their child. Then they praise their own selflessness and wonder why their daughter left when they were such model parents. They’re hypocrites.
But you have to feel bad for the girl’s parents. They didn’t know any better. You see, I have a theory that this song is rooted in the generational divide between the baby boomers and their parents, and has strong socioeconomic connotations. Bear with me here.
We, as Americans, tend to think of the Great Depression as an American phenomenon. We forget that what started on Wall Street sent shockwaves around the world. England, especially in the north, was hit hard by the financial woes of the 1930’s. At the beginning of the decade, the unemployment rate reached 70% in some areas of England, and many families were living entirely on the British welfare system, called the dole. And what finally pulled the world out of the Great Depression? Ironically, it was another global crisis, World War II. More than five and a half million British men, after suffering through ten years of economic hardship, were sent to fight. The Beatles were born right in the middle of this era, from 1940 to 1943, with the second-oldest, John Lennon, being born right towards the end of the German bombing of Britain.
When those surviving soldiers returned, they, like their American counterparts, rightfully thought that the government owed them something.
And the suburbs were born.
The only wish of these ex-soldiers was to live a secure life. No welfare. No bombing. Just a calm, comfortable life with a family in a safe, happy environment. They had been through enough.
“We struggled hard all our lives to get by.”
Now all they wanted were the material goods that they never had when they were younger. And they wanted their children (the baby boomers) to have the same. These are the parents in “She’s Leaving Home.” They “sacrificed most of [their] lives” for the next generation to be better off than they were.
But the boomers themselves? They couldn’t care less.
They grew up in privilege, or at least most of them did. They took for granted their comfortable lifestyles. They wanted to have fun, to get out there and dance, and have sex, and try the coolest drugs, and listen to the grooviest music. They wanted to be young and free, something their parents never got the chance to be. This was the titular “she” of “She’s Leaving Home”. This was Melanie Coe. And these boomers couldn’t understand why their parents were so boring, why they just sat at home and were happy living in the same boring old houses and driving the same boring old cars and reading the same boring old newspapers as every other boring old grown-up. Teenage runaways were common in that time period, because so many young adults wanted to escape.
And The Beatles saw this.
You can tell because they wrote “She’s Leaving Home” from both sides of the story. Who’s really the hero? One could argue that it’s the girl, because she felt stifled by her parents, and she realized that “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”. But then again, she “thoughtlessly” abandoned her parents. And the parents truly believed that they could make their daughter happy by buying her things. But then again, the parents made their daughter feel incredibly lonely. Melanie Coe, in the aforementioned interview, said this about “She’s Leaving Home”:
“I can’t listen to the song. It’s just too sad for me. My parents died a long time ago and we were never resolved.”
Generational divides can never be resolved. It’s in their nature. But that is what makes “She’s Leaving Home” such an incredible accomplishment. The Beatles were able to see beyond their generation’s predicament and create a beautiful song that captures the true dynamic behind the fascinating and turbulent decade that was the 1960’s.
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